Does it pay to have 24-hour hawker centres?

Our Tampines Hub hawkers keep stalls open though place is near deserted after midnight

It is 3am at Hawker Centre @ Our Tampines Hub.

About 20 of the 42 stalls at this 24-hour centre are open, serving assorted dishes including economy bee hoon, roast meat, chicken rice and satay.

There are only four customers in the whole hawker centre.

Two women are perched in front of a bak kut teh stall having a late-night heart-to-heart.

Two men sit separately in different corners of the centre. One reads a newspaper, nursing his drink. The other stares into space.

This is a common sight, The Sunday Times heard when it visited the hawker centre in the early morning on Friday.

At 12.30am, there were 30 patrons, but they disappeared quickly.

ALMOST NO CUSTOMERS

Between midnight and 6am, there are usually only two or three customers. But I must open the stall. As a result, I sleep only about five hours a night.

HAWKER YAHYA IBRAHIM, whose Muslim food stall is open 20 hours a day.


KEEPING LONGER HOURS

We understand that the longer operating hours offered by OTMH at the hawker centre are intended to complement other amenities in OTH which are open 24 hours, and that the amenities are offered by OTH to cater to residents who prefer to or can only shop after normal retail hours.

NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY

The dearth of customers from midnight to 6am has led some hawkers to question why they have to keep their stalls open during those quiet hours.

Hawker Alex Hoong, 49, whose Korean food stall is open 24/7, said: "From midnight to 6am, I will be happy if I can get 10 customers.

"It doesn't make sense to keep my stall open at this time of night, but I have to fulfil my contract with the operator. I have to keep the stall open to avoid getting a penalty."

Another hawker, Mr Yahya Ibrahim, 59, whose Muslim food stall is open 20 hours a day, said: "Between midnight and 6am, there are usually only two or three customers. But I must open the stall. As a result, I sleep only about five hours a night."

The hawker centre, which started operations in November 2016, is managed by OTMH, a subsidiary of food centre operator Kopitiam. It is one of seven hawker centres run under the not-for-profit model which has recently come under scrutiny.

In August, Makansutra founder and food critic K.F. Seetoh claimed that rents at these centres were higher than the norm, as hawkers had to pay for a variety of services, including dish washing and tray returns. Two days ago, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that the National Environment Agency will do a "stock take" of the not-for-profit hawker centre model, and iron out problems related to cost and contractual terms.

One of the problems highlighted by Mr Seetoh was how some hawkers had to work long hours despite little footfall.

Mr Vincent Cheong, Kopitiam's corporate communications manager, said about a third of the stalls at the Tampines centre have 24-hour operations.

 
 
 
 

He said: "In support of Our Tampines Hub (OTH) being a 24/7 integrated hub, we need to ensure that adequate affordable cooked food options are available at all times to maintain vibrancy for both the hawker centre and OTH."

He said that, apart from the hawker centre, OTH's public service centre and supermarket, as well as some food and beverage establishments also operate 24/7.

OTMH ran a couple of late-night supper promotional campaigns to attract the supper crowd to the hawker centre, he said, adding that OTH has also organised late-night activities, such as screenings of movies and World Cup and English Premier League matches, to drive traffic.

Some tenants' requests for shorter operating hours had also been granted, he said.

When the hawker centre opened in November 2016, there were 36 stalls open 24 hours a day. Now, out of the 42, there are 16.

Mr Cheong said OTMH will continue to monitor the situation.

In response to hawkers' claims that they felt pressured into stating they preferred 24-hour operations to better their chances of securing a stall when they applied, Mr Cheong said hawkers were selected based on criteria such as quality of food, proposed food pricing, selection of operating hours and track record.

Mr Hoong takes the long hours in his stride. He usually mans the stall for 12 hours a day - from the early evening until the early morning. His wife does so for six hours a day, and they have two workers who do 10-to 12-hour shifts in the day.

"It is very difficult to get staff to work for you at night," he said.

Customers, however, are not complaining. For example, junior college student Tan Yun Wee, 18, bought a bowl of Korean ramen noodles at 2am.

He has been going to OTH regularly to study for his upcoming A levels at an air-conditioned area at the hub, and said: "Having the hawker centre here is very convenient for me, because it is always open and near my home."

Cabin crew member Kennalyn Choo, 25, was also catching up with a friend at around 2am.

Before they left at 2.30am, Ms Choo told The Sunday Times that she goes to the hawker centre occasionally, as she lives in the neighbourhood.

"There are very few people here at this time, because everyone is asleep. But for me, it is convenient, and great for catching up with friends because it is so quiet."